Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Who is My Neighbor?

The e-mail signature of one of our Illinois correspondents includes a quote from Jane Addams (1860-1935): "The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." It's taken from a speech she gave in 1892, "The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements," and appears in her autobiography which was published in 1910.


The tricky part of the last phrase is not the word "common," as all but the most strenuous of individualists would agree that our lives are importantly connected to other people. The tricky part is "all of us." With whom do we share common life? Who is in our community? And who is out?

In Luke chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" It's a freighty question, because Jesus and the lawyer have just agreed that the command in Leviticus 19:18--You shall love your neighbor as yourself--is at the core of religious obligation. Jesus answers the definitional question with a story of a man who is robbed and savagely beaten while traveling on a country highway. Two religious elites ignore his plight, until he is rescued and cared for by a foreigner. (In an updated version recently done by my church's youth group, the despised Samaritan became an Iranian Muslim with AIDS.) Jesus asks the lawyer: 'Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?' He said, 'The one who showed him mercy.' Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise' (vv. 36-37). Jesus's interpretation is interestingly expansive, since the original verse in Leviticus clearly addresses only not holding grudges or taking vengeance. A negative admonition (don't do these mean things) becomes a positive one (show mercy).



I used to be troubled by the way Jesus turns the lawyer's question around. The lawyer asks, "Who is MY neighbor?" Jesus, though seemingly intending the lawyer to emulate the Samaritan foreigner's actions, asks him who is the beaten man's neighbor? Which way does the obligation to love/show mercy flow? Maybe it makes more sense in Greek.

ANYWAY! Admitting that even as a boy I tended to overthink things, and that the relationship of neighbor is two-way, questions remain about this much-beloved passage. Interestingly, the fact that the good guy is a foreigner is not one. That feature of the story has rhetorical punch, but doesn't expand the scope of Leviticus 19, which goes on to say The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God (v. 34).

But I am a social scientist, always on guard against generalizing from a single case. The beaten man is, though he never speaks and we never learn his identity or really anything about him, a wholly sympathetic figure. We can hardly blame him for his plight; he is suffering from a random horrible event. Assuming he's able to recover from his injuries, he will go back to his old life, resume supporting himself and if applicable his family, and will require our (well, the Samaritan's) care no longer.

These questions matter because much of American policy revolves around the question of who we include in our obligation to care, and what we're obligated to care for. Niles Ross said in response to my last post, "Students, the poor, the elderly, and the disabled [lack] the loud voice of those who already have cars, and see no need for mass transportation.... Do we care?" Is the fact that some around us lack political and economic power a problem for the rest of us?
  •  Do we owe some care to people who are poor, and are likely to stay poor without sustained intervention (and sometimes even then)? 
  • To people who lack good health insurance? 
  • To animal and plant species threatened by oil exploration or climate change? 
  • To people who are in bad shape because in the past they took drugs, had unprotected sex, dropped out of school, or otherwise violated the norms of society? 
  • To immigrants who are in the country illegally? 
  • To people that have personally injured us? 
  • To people we have never seen? 
If we owe some or all of these people care, how much care do we owe them?

My initial answer, based purely on gut reaction would be that our obligation to care is expansive, albeit (a) beyond an initial patching up, we should focus our efforts on helping people become self-sustaining; (b) I have no problem jailing people who have committed crimes, and even in extreme cases executing them; and (c) I'm fine with rational and effective regulation of immigration i.e. not what we've got now. This is a first pass at the question, however, and I can see where others could make the case that we draw boundaries around our obligation to care. Drawing these boundaries too closely, though, leads us into gated communities, either real or metaphorical. Isn't that the point of a gated community, to winnow a few into the circle and define everyone else as beyond the pale?

Here, at last, THE POINT: Two sets of questions...

  1. Are there moral consequences for drawing the circle of community/care too small? Do our souls wither or shrink if we decide some people are not our neighbors?
  2. Are there practical consequences for drawing the circle too small? If some part of a city or metropolitan isn't flourishing, does that materially impact the rest of it? If Detroit is dying does that affect Grosse Pointe? Does it matter to the rest of Cedar Rapids if people in Wellington Heights or the Taylor Area aren't thriving?
Answering either of these in the affirmative makes it imperative to figure out how to live together, and moves issues of economic opportunity, environmental sustainability and accommodation of diversity to the center of American public policy. Otherwise they are merely matters of  personal preference. We could try to protect ourselves from any practical consequences of social problems through more physical distance, police, gates or guns.

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